Training & Gaming at Gen Con

This entry is part 19 of 25 in the series Service Dog Training

Mindy joined me at Gen Con this year. Because you can’t buy that kind of socialization experience. What is Gen Con, you may ask? Well, “Gen Con, LLC produces the largest consumer hobby, fantasy, science fiction and adventure game convention in North America. Gen Con, The Best Four Days In Gaming!™”

(Actually, I think it’s the world’s largest?)

A girl in a wheelchair is accompanied by a Golden Retriever wearing a service vest and carrying a plushed terrier on his back, dressed as Sir Didymus from the film Labyrinth.

Mindy wasn’t the only service dog at Gen Con. Here’s an assistance dog appearing as Sir Didymus (from Labyrinth).

It’s a gaming (and SFF, miniatures, film, etc.) convention which takes over much of Indianapolis each year. I posted on Facebook that Mindy wasn’t impressed by the 60,000 people, but that was an exaggeration; this year’s actual count was 56, 614 attendees. But of course, most of those people came more than one day, so turnstile attendance was 184,699. The con runs five days, but Mindy attended only three, including the two busiest. And she was a rock star. Rock star, I tell you.

See, I’m a costume geek, and I spend a lot of my convention time with costume geeks. And Gen Con brings out some pretty cool costumes. And while some of these wouldn’t necessarily catch a puppy’s eye, some are really excellent socialization opportunities. a pirate in oversized tricorn hat with a beard made of writhing squid tentacles

For example, Mindy trotted right by a Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I didn’t catch a photo of him, but he was pretty accurate to the film. And while Mindy has never met a squid-face before, she didn’t give him a second glance.

Nor was she bothered by the eight-foot-tall dancing Big Bird from Sesame Street, or any of the other uncanny-valley humanoids we encountered.

In fact, she’s become downright jaded. I wanted a picture of her with some Lego movie friends, just to show how she wasn’t bothered by these oversized walking non-human figures, and she could hardly be bothered to pay attention to them. In fact, she flipped on her back to stretch and tried to prop a paw on Lord Business. (Which is rude, puppy; always ask before touching a costume!)

Mindy sitting between Laura in costume and Lord Business, a nine-foot Lego figure with human inside Mindy lying beside Laura in costume, on her back, one paw stretching toward Lord Business, a nine-foot Lego figure with human inside

She also sat through a “How to Dance Thriller” workshop I taught. She barked a couple of times at a few zombies who danced right into her, an invitation to stomp just a bit closer and play, but settled again when it became clear that the zombies weren’t going to play with her despite their bent over, hoppy movement.

In fact, the worst she was in the entire con was during a game of Advanced Dimensional Green Ninja Educational Preparatory Super Elementary Fortress 555, an RPG with an… energetic air. (Seriously, must be seen to be believed.) I’d given Mindy a chew beside my table and was hardly paying attention to her, and when an opening cheer went up from the thirty or so players and GMs, she jumped up on one of the GMs. That was my fault entirely — she’s learned to tolerate applause and cheering, but it can still catch her for the first time in a new context, and she wasn’t expecting raucous hooting in a hotel conference room. But she settled again and went back to her chew.

But if that’s as bad as it gets for three days with nearly 60,000 people, I’ll take it!

Preparation and Foundation

It’s important to note that Mindy didn’t go into this cold. Of course not! That would have been not only unfair, but cruel. Laura in classic 80s glam rock makeup and clothing, all black leather and vinyl and straps, with zebra-stripe eyeshadow and a Union Jack on her lips Laura in classic 80s glam rock makeup and clothing, all black leather and vinyl and straps, with zebra-stripe eyeshadow and a Union Jack on her lips, holding Mindy as a small puppy. Mindy is kissing Lauras chin.

No, Mindy started her preparation for Gen Con months ago, when I was working on costumes at home. Mindy learned early on that people come in a variety of shapes and colors, and that sometimes people she knew could even change shapes and colors. Sometimes they have enormous prosthetics (like 20″ horns). Sometimes they have weird clothing silhouettes instead of puppy-friendly jeans and T-shirts.

black Labrador puppy curled up beside the feet of a headless male mannequin being covered in silicone

And my house is full of weird stuff. There’s been a headless male mannequin in my living room for weeks, while I work on a project. Mindy not only isn’t bothered by him, she wanted to sleep beneath him as I brushed silicone rubber. Puppy got slightly decorated.

Despite all this, I expected her to be weirded out when we were working on face casting, and I got treats ready before I let her into the room where her favorite people had been turned into faceless blobs. But Mindy never hesitated. “Oh, hi, friend Emi. Something’s on your head. Can you pet me?” woman seated in chair head wrapped in silicone and plaster, with black Labrador puppy leaning into her lap and soliciting petting And Mindy’s even attended a (much smaller) con before, where she met talking Daleks and storm troopers and all kinds of things. So Gen Con, while challenging, was only building on what she already knew.

We joke that Mindy will be the ideal guide for an interstellar diplomat.

Crowd Work

Interestingly, the toughest parts of Gen Con weren’t the costumes. It’s the fact that there’s nearly 60,000 people sharing space. We got some phenomenal practice in as far as working in crowds.

We kept the Gentle Leader for the most part, simply because I didn’t want to bother with evaluating a loose leash or ask Mindy to focus on anything more than staying quiet and close in the mob. Just like when we took the subway and bus for the first time, she had to focus only on the tough part, not the manners we work on more commonly. One criterion at a time.

Check out this video. It’s four minutes, which might be a bit long for just walking, but if you don’t want to do it all, skip ahead to the final minute or so for a close-up view of Mindy working through the crowd, bags bumping her head and all. This is why I was so proud of her.

[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=”IU5hAsx3msY” width=”640″ height=”480″ auto_thumb=”1″]
She was a good girl, and I’m so proud of her!

Mindy sits between Laura and a puppeteer, pawing at the sheep puppet above her

No sheep were harmed in the taking of this photo.

Our only brush with disaster: I took Mindy to meet Angus and Bob, the Mayfair sheep. She was fine with the puppets, even as they spoke to her, but when we posed for a picture, the puppeteer accidentally rested the puppet on her head…. And that was clearly an invitation to play.

There were also signs I may have gone too far in socialization, and Mindy may not recognize real danger when she sees it….

Mindy sitting beneath the creature from ALIEN


Ah, well, Guess we’ll have to retrain her to fear unstoppable alien predators.

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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